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The Harlem Renaissance was a creative era for African American artists. It sparked new trends in literature, music, and art. The growing African American population in the North meant an increasing number of African Americans had political power to continue the struggle for civil rights.

The Harlem Renaissance

 What does the Harlem Renaissance reveal about African American culture in the 1920s?

During World War I and the 1920s, hundreds of thousands of African Americans joined the Great Migration from the rural South to industrial cities in the North. Populations swelled in large Northern cities. Nightclubs and music filled these cities, particularly the New York City neighborhood of Harlem. Artistic development, racial pride, and political organization combined in a flowering of African American arts. This became known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The Writers

Claude McKay was the first important writer of the Harlem Renaissance. In his 1922 poetry collection, Harlem Shadows, McKay expressed a proud defiance and bitter contempt of racism. These were two major characteristics of Harlem Renaissance writing.

"O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!

Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,

And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!

What though before us lies the open grave?

Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,

Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!"

—from “If We Must Die,” in African American Literature

Langston Hughes was a prolific, original, and versatile writer. He became a leading voice of the African American experience in America. Zora Neale Hurston wrote some of the first major stories featuring African American women as central characters. Other notable writers of the Harlem Renaissance include Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, and Dorothy West.

The literature of the Harlem Renaissance helped to instill a strong sense of pride, defiance, and confidence in African Americans. It encouraged resistance to racism and challenged stereotypes, and it also reminded African Americans of their roots and the difficulties they had already overcome.  It helped lay the foundations for the civil rights movement that would begin after World War II.

If there was any negative impact of Harlem Renaissance literature, it lay within its own success. In helping instill pride and confidence, it also helped create a distinct and separate African American culture apart from the wider culture of the nation. This, in turn, contributed to the rise of movements advocating that African Americans separate themselves from the rest of society in order to protect themselves, and preserve their own identity. 

Jazz, Blues, and the Theater

New Orleans native Louis Armstrong moved to Chicago in 1922. There he introduced an early form of jazz, a musical style influenced by Dixieland and ragtime, with syncopated rhythms and improvisational elements. In Chicago, Armstrong broke away from the New Orleans tradition of group playing by performing highly imaginative solos on the cornet and trumpet.

Composer, pianist, and bandleader Edward “Duke” Ellington also had a special sound, a blend of improvisation and orchestration using different combinations of instruments. Like many other African American entertainers, Ellington got his start at the Cotton Club, the most famous nightclub in Harlem (but one that served only white customers). Years later, Ellington reflected on the music of the era by saying, “Everything, and I repeat, everything had to swing. And that was just it, those cats really had it; they had that soul. And you know you can’t just play some of this music without soul. Soul is very important.”

Bessie Smith seemed to symbolize soul. She became known as the Empress of the Blues. Smith sang of unfulfilled love, poverty, and oppression—the classic themes of the blues, a soulful style of music that evolved from African American spirituals.

Jazz reflected the characteristics and issues of the 1920s era in many ways. With its emphasis on improvisation, it reflected the feelings of many people that the 1920s was a time of experimentation and a breaking away from old rules and values. It expressed the individualism of the era, and because many of the popular jazz singers were women, it also reflected the new role of women in American society. Blues and soul music also enabled African Americans to give voice to their difficult social and economic position in American society.

Jazz had an enormously positive impact on society. It built a connection between African American culture and the rest of American society, helping to reduce racism by the shared experience of the music. Not everyone, however, appreciated the music at the time. During Prohibition, jazz music became associated with the speakeasies where alcohol was consumed illegally. As a result many people believed the music contributed to immoral behavior and threatened traditional values.

American jazz music was also one of the first American cultural expressions that had a significant impact on the rest of the world. In part because of America's role in ending World War I, many Europeans, especially in France, became fascinated with American culture. Many American jazz musicians visited Europe after World War I, and their performances helped develop a European audience for the music. Paris, in particular, became a center for jazz in Europe, just as it became home to many American expatriate writers in the years after the war.

Theater also flourished during the Harlem Renaissance. Shuffle Along, the first musical written, produced, and performed by African Americans, made its Broadway debut in 1921. The show’s success helped launch a number of careers, including those of Florence Mills and Paul Robeson. Robeson received wide acclaim for his performance in the title role of Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones. He also gained fame four years later for his work in the musical Show Boat. Robeson often appeared at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem.

African Americans and 1920s Politics

 

How did African American leaders differ in their approaches to political actions during this decade?

In 1919 approximately 1,300 African American veterans of World War I marched through Manhattan to Harlem. W.E.B. Du Bois captured their sense of pride and defiance in a speech:

"We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting. Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why."

—from The Crisis, May 1919

Growing Political Power in the North

World War I set the stage for African Americans to reenter American politics. The Great Migration of African Americans to the North had a significant impact as well. As their numbers grew in city neighborhoods, African Americans became an influential voting bloc. In 1928 African American voters in Chicago helped elect Oscar DePriest. He was the first African American representative in Congress from a Northern state.

The NAACP Battles Injustice

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) battled hard against segregation and discrimination against African Americans. Its efforts focused primarily on lobbying public officials and working through the court system. The NAACP’s persistent protests against the horrors of lynching led to the passage of antilynching legislation in the House of Representatives in 1922. The Senate defeated the bill, but the NAACP’s ongoing protests kept the issue in the news. This probably helped reduce the number of lynchings that took place.

In 1930 the NAACP joined with labor unions to launch a highly organized national campaign against the nomination of Judge John J. Parker to the U.S. Supreme Court. The North Carolina judge allegedly was racist and antilabor. By a narrow margin, the Senate refused to confirm Parker’s nomination. This proved that African Americans had become a powerful political force.

Black Nationalism and Marcus Garvey

While the NAACP fought for integration and improvement in the economic and political position of African Americans, other groups began to emphasize black nationalism and black pride. Some began calling for African Americans to separate from white society.

A dynamic leader from Jamaica, Marcus Garvey captured the imagination of millions of African Americans with his “Negro Nationalism.” Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), aimed at promoting black pride and unity. He was inspired by Booker T. Washington’s call for self-reliance. The central message of Garvey’s Harlem-based movement was that African Americans could gain economic and political power by educating themselves. Garvey also advocated separation and independence from whites. In 1920 he told his followers they would never find justice or freedom in America. He proposed leading them to Africa.

The emerging African American middle class and intellectuals distanced themselves from Garvey and his push for racial separation. The FBI saw UNIA as a dangerous catalyst for African American uprisings. Garvey also alienated key figures in the Harlem Renaissance by calling them “weak-kneed and cringing . . . [flatterers of] the white man.” Convicted of mail fraud in 1923, he served time in prison. In 1927 President Coolidge used Garvey’s immigrant status to have him deported to Jamaica.

Despite Garvey’s failure to keep his movement alive, he instilled millions of African Americans with a sense of pride in their heritage and inspired hope for the future. These feelings reemerged strongly in the 1950s and played a vital role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Reviewing Vocabulary

TEKS: 25A, 25B, 26C

 

Using Your Notes

TEKS: 13A, 25A, 25B, 26C

 

Answering the Guiding Questions

TEKS: 25A, 25B

TEKS: 6A, 6B, 26A, 26C

 

Writing Activity

TEKS: 6A, 26A, 26C